Trump backs off threat to bomb Iran’s cultural sites

After criticism, US president says he’s ‘okay’ with following international law, but warns Tehran will ‘suffer consequences’ if it acts out of line

US President Donald Trump speaks during an 'Evangelicals for Trump Coalition Launch,' at King Jesus International Ministry, January 3, 2020, in Miami. (AP/Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump speaks during an 'Evangelicals for Trump Coalition Launch,' at King Jesus International Ministry, January 3, 2020, in Miami. (AP/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump on Tuesday backed away from his earlier insistence that he has the right to order the bombing of Iran’s cultural treasures during a war.

Facing strong criticism that such attacks would be a war crime, Trump said he was “okay” with following international law. However, he repeated an earlier complaint that he found the restriction unfair.

“Think of it: they kill our people, they blow up our people and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions. But I’m okay with it,” Trump told reporters.

“You know what, if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law.”

He added a warning that if Iran “does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly.”

Iran has threatened to take revenge for a US drone strike that killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

An Iranian mourner holds a placard during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani, in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

On Monday, Defense Secretary Mike Esper had distanced the Pentagon from Trump’s threats to bomb Iranian cultural sites despite international prohibitions on such activity.

Esper said the US will “follow the laws of armed conflict.” Asked if that ruled out targeting cultural sites, Esper pointedly added, “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

Trump previous threat, publicized in a tweet, prompted an outcry from domestic critics, the Iranian government and the UN’S cultural agency UNESCO when he said that he did not need to abide by international law on protecting such sites in war.

Mourners step over a US flags with pictures of US President Donald Trump while waiting for the funeral procession of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad, Iraq, January 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Trump’s tweet also caused concern in Washington. One US national security official said the threat against Iranian cultural sites had caught many in his administration off-guard and prompted calls for others in his government, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to clarify the matter. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly to the issue, called such a clarification necessary to affirm that the US military would not intentionally commit war crimes.

When asked about the president’s tweet, Pompeo said Sunday that the US will “behave” within the law. Questioned about the matter again Tuesday, Pompeo said every action taken by the US “will be consistent with the international rule of law,” though he did not specifically rule out Iranian cultural sites.

He then blamed Iran for damaging its culture.

Iran is home to two dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Persepolis, with its ancient ruins that date to 518 B.C.; the 17th century grand mosque of Isfahan, located in a teeming bazaar; and the Golestan Palace in the heart of Tehran, where the last shah to rule Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was crowned in 1967.

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